Saint Valentine would be surprised, perhaps even angered, to find out that he has become a symbol of romantic love.
As far as we can tell, he was a priest near Rome who was executed for his Christian beliefs in the third century. A feast in his name was first held in 496. For a millennium, he was venerated, not as a saint who stood for love, but as one associated with healing the sick and crippled.
By the late Middle Ages, he was seen as the patron saint of epileptics, especially in Germany and Central Europe, where artworks from the period depict him curing children of their seizures.
It seems that it was not until 1382, when Chaucer wrote a poem describing a February Valentine’s Day, as a time when birds and people chose their mates.
The birth of the greetings card industry fueled an America Valentine craze in the 1840s. Today, 141 million Valentine’s Day cards are exchanged worldwide each year. One in ten couples get engaged on February 14.
The change in St. Valentine from being a saint of Christian love into a symbol of romantic love can be discussed as the change in our attitudes towards love over the centuries.
Honmei choco (“true feeling chocolate”) has also become “obligation chocolate” as women are expected to not only gift boyfriends, prospective boyfriends, and husbands, but bosses and almost any guy who has done them some favor.
There is also a reciprocal “holiday” called White Day which is celebrated one month later on March 14th when men buy candy and gifts for women. It is also observed in South Korea and Taiwan. White Day gifts are usually more expensive – jewelery, white chocolate, and white lingerie are popular.
Black Day (April 14) is a South Korean informal tradition when singles get together and eat jajangmyeon (white noodles with black bean sauce) and is a celebration for those who did not give or receive gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day.
All these 14th day celebrations bring me back to Saint Valentine, who was martyred on February 14 in 269 A.D. There is an alternate origin story about him and the holiday that is more romantic.
In his time, there was a shortage of soldiers enlisting, so Emperor Claudius II forbade single men to get married in order to increase his army. Valentine’s priestly rebellion was to officiate secret weddings fo the loving couples. When this was discovered, he was imprisoned and sentenced to death.
According to legend, while he was on “death row” he fell in love with the daughter of a guard who visited him. On the day he was executed, he left a note for her professing his love and signed it “Love from your Valentine.” The original Valentine’s Day card?
If you want to turn up the heat a bit on this day, you might consider a Tantric approach to this holiday.
Tantrism appears in both Buddhism and Hinduism and influenced many religious trends and movements going back to the 5th century.
But Tantra in itself is neither a religion nor an “ism” but a fundamental spiritual science.
In the way that Valentine’s story went from religious love to romantic love, Tantrism is better known now by many Westerners in the context of Tantric sex.
It is an ancient sexual discipline inspired by Buddhist philosophy. Generally, it is a slower, more conscious and more spiritual version of lovemaking.
In Introduction to Tantra : The Transformation of Desire, you learn that the practice began some 2,500 years ago and was seen as a way to transform desire into a route to enlightenment. It was associated with the early practice of yoga.
A more modern-day and physical take on the topic can be found in Urban Tantra: Sacred Sex for the Twenty-First Century and is full of “cosmic orgasms, chakras, firebreath and the clench and hold.”
A middle ground between physical and spiritual, is the aim of The Tantra Experience: Evolution through Love.
It seems very seductive to think that this practice would enable us to contact the ultimate truths, but today might be a good day to start down that path.